Stories from the Rounds, 3: Above the Glen

Over the last few weeks I’ve shared stories from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

This last one is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2016, called Above the Glen. It focuses on the Tranter Round, later expanded by Charlie for his own Ramsay Round.


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Above the Glen

However you cut your hillgoing cloth, the mountains that circle the Ben and its glen are spectacular country. On the south side of Glen Nevis; the Mamores, interspersed with some fairly magical lochans, on the north side; the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, the Ben Nevis itself. Linked by a wild and lonely watershed, these are high places that provoke challenge and ambition when taken in singly or in pairs. But join them together in a continuous walk and I’d argue there’s a beauty and elegance of line that can hold its own against any other in the world. There are 18 Munros here, 7 of them over 1100ms. Collectively they are known as the Tranter Round, after the author of the first continuous 24 hour round here, Philip Tranter. Even as a backpack taken over 3 or 4 days, it’s no mean feat.

This area has kept me busy in the years since moving north to live in Scotland, and there’s a TGO connection too. A fell runner called Charlie Ramsay got in touch a few years ago, after seeing a photo of mine from Knoydart in this magazine (TGO). Charlie used Knoydart as part of his training in order to extend Tranter’s round with an additional 5 Munros around Loch Treig to create his own Round. He was after my photo for an illustrated talk. So, we got talking, and I tried the Ramsay Round myself as a backpack. I failed the first time. To be honest I found it brutal, and simply ran out of time, energy and good weather. To be brutally honest I ran out of me. But my consolation in that failure was discovering the smaller, older Tranter Round for myself. For his fell running record, Charlie was going for 24 Munros in 24 hours, but should the ground rather than numbers be our governing logic, then Tranter’s Round is by far the more obvious, and perhaps even the more pleasing line.

Mick was waiting for me at the start of the route, or near enough – just up the road from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. It was his first time on 1 or 2 of these hills, and my third or fourth for most. Approaching the route anticlockwise means beginning with the slightly gentler slopes of the Mamores at the beginning, leaving the biggest climbs - over the Aonachs and Nevis - until the end. For me, this is the only way to do the route justice. It’s the way that Tranter did his round, and Charlie did his. It’s not the way the majority of runners tackle the 24hour challenge, but if you’re carrying a backpack it probably makes sense. Especially if you are carrying as bag as big as Mick was.

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The first Munro, Mullach nan Coirean, is a boggy beginning, but once up on top, the height is maintained around a beautiful coire strewn with red screes. We were blessed with perfect conditions; clouds casting cooling, dramatic shadows across the plateau, a gentle breeze and no midges. We made slowly for the first of the two hills named Stob Ban on the Round, charmed by a layer cake trifle of pink granite, white quartzite, chocolate coloured earth, straw and lime coloured grass. Just these two Munros make a lovely circuit by themselves, but the joy of a big walk is in the scale of the thing. After day two, I begin to lose count… hills rise and fall and me with them, hypnotized by rhythm and repetition.

We weren’t in that groove yet, though. Stob Ban did rise and fall – but very slowly. I realised we wouldn’t make the ideal camp spot by the evening, so my plan B became plan A. We took a big drink at the Lochan Coire nam Miseach before schlepping up to the bealach for the first of two out-and-back spurs on the main ridge of the Mamores. For us it was a relief to take the backpacks off and weave our way along the thin crest. For the couple we meet on the Ring of Steall circuit (which includes this Munro), it felt exposed and a little edgy.

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A couple of hours later we made camp under that other spur – An Gearanach. There’s only 40ms of descent to collect water from the coire spring, but it was a tiring walk back to my shelter. Mick seemed similarly shattered after the hot, steep and loose ups and downs of An Bodach. As the sun set, the wind dropped, a chill in the still air just enough to keep the midges at bay. Ben Nevis cooled to a blue-black bruise in the shadows, and we slept.

By 8.30am we were picking our way up An Gearanach, and by 9 on the summit, already shedding layers in the heat. Back at the bags, today’s sun cream was applied to yesterday’s sunburn and water was collected, all watched over by a hind, herself in the shadow of our next objective. Na Gruagaichean was an exhausting and uncompromising slog for both of us, but the arête after lifted my spirits. This is one of my favourite sections of the round and a taste of the more dramatic ridges on the north side of the glen. We waited for a large group to pass on the summit of Binnein Mor before picking our way gingerly along the blocky ridge.

I could hear shouting, and then a crash below us. The group was throwing rocks into the coire. My hackles rising, I shouted as clearly and carefully as I could manage “Hey there. Please stop. It is dangerous. Thankyou”. I felt uncomfortable and bossy, but it seemed to work. Then, we contoured slowly and steeply to the lochans under Binnean Beag, a top we’d both done before and choose to forego this time.

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The beautiful stalker’s path to the foot of Sgùrr Eilde Mor wasn’t enough to prevent Mick deciding he’d had enough. His heavy load had caused a nascent back problem to flare up. It was wise to call it here – he could easily bail into Kinlochleven and then onto the West Highland Way back to Fort William. The last hour together had begun to feel a little funereal so I reminded him that he’d walked 8 Munros in a day and half – hardly a bad effort! The weather changed as we parted company, reflecting my own sombre mood as I dragged my heels up the screes of Sgùrr Eilde Mor to meet a freezing shower on the upper slopes. 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Maybe I should call it a day, too?

Thankfully the shower soon passed and after a text home and a layer change I made speedy progress on the mossy lower slopes towards the Glen Nevis watershed in brightening sunshine. A short while later I felt fine; better than fine, in fact – great! Down, then up, rising and falling… I remember this from last time. This maybe familiar territory but it’s still a challenge, with it’s attendant mind games.

I reached the glen floor by 7pm and wasted a good deal of time finding the stalker’s path that handrails the brilliantly named Allt nam Fang. It was gone 9 by the time I reached the foot of the second Stob Ban on the route, which was time to call a halt. The first 300ms of grassy slope in the morning were fairly sluggish, but after that first top of the day, I climbed through a claustrophobic cloud inversion and was up on Stob Choire Claurigh by 10am. From here was downhill joy. For the first time, I had good visibility on the Grey Corries, with that dramatic inversion swirling at my heels until it burned off completely on the blocky and spectacular quartzite arête of Caisteil. I corrected previous mistakes I’d made on Stob Coire Easian in the past and dropped down into the coire, albeit a little too early. It was going well, but I knew the crux of the round awaited.

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After the shapely and straight forward Sgùrr Choinnich Mor, things become more complex. My way onto Stob Coire Bhealaich has always been by what runners know as ‘Spinks’ ridge’ (after the fell runner and double Bob Graham record holder Nicky Spinks) and this time was no different. The upper section  offers disorientating and incredible views of the most contorted geology on the Round. Exciting, yes… but the ground is increasingly eroded and very unnerving with a backpack. So much so, I was determined to find a better way. Topping out, I dropped my pack and headed down and around, exploring the slopes just to the north of Sgùrr a’ Bhuic for another hour or more, which confirmed to me that I’d been worrying myself unnecessarily all this time. Especially if you have a pack - go around to the south, not straight up!

By the time I was back on track, it was early evening. The path to Aonach Beag is always a slow grind, but easier today now the heat of the day was gone. I left Aonach Mòr to itself – I’ve been on it every year for the past 4, and that’s 3 too many for me! Finding the cairn, I descended carefully to the bealach on horribly loose ground and made a cold, late camp under the final big climb to Carn Mòr Dearg.

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I shalt say more about the CMD and it’s arête here, because more than enough has been said elsewhere, and because some wonders shouldn’t cease until you see them for yourself. A little mystery should be left intact, because along with the Skye Cuillin, it’s one of the most complete and satisfying alpine experiences a hill walker can have in the UK. Choose your weather window well, start early and take care – this time around, I was having so much fun hopping from boulder to boulder, at one point I almost lost my balance. It’s a cliché, but complacency really is when accidents happen. Once around the dogleg and at the cairn, only the very last, merciless drag up the enormous hunched shoulders of the Ben remains.

It’s always a surreal, rude return to twenty first century reality, the Ben summit via the CMD… and the path down to terra firma stranger still. This time: Hipsters in plimsolls, shirtless jocks, underprepared dads and exhausted kids, a stationary girl with partner in waiting, theirs a silent tableau. Huffing grandmas, thirsty dogs, hobbling, gear-heavy euro trekkers, Japanese teens weighed down with tripods and iphones… my now empty food bag slowly filling with other people’s rubbish. If I sound a little misanthropic, forgive me – to see so many, so quickly and in this otherworld of rock and snow was a jolt to the quieted headspace of a big walk. But once over that surreal surprise, it’s also heartening to see so many out on a beautiful day, making the effort. It’s always friendly here on the mountain, with a common goal in mind. People say hi, smile and ask, and I try to be truthful but gentle about how far it is to the top. As I finally reached the shade of the birch trees with my own set of grumbling knees, I thought again that the long path down from the UK’s highest mountain would be longer and duller still, without the company. Thankfully, it still takes all sorts. 

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It’s funny how these things develop until they become huge parts of our lives; the fragment of an idea, a random contact out of the blue, the pieces of a puzzle coming together not by design at all, but through some kind of synchronicity. It’s good to mark that, I think. These mountains are friends of sorts to me now, but I’m not so familiar that there aren’t always new things to learn. The Tranter Round has all the qualities of a through-hike in miniature - big ascents, high-level camps, long days and some interesting decision-making. It takes a tough, elegant line that makes complete sense topographically. It always challenges, but in different places each time. I’ve tried to let myself be open to it, and it’s given back again and again. I like that walking it has taught me to do just that - to be more open - very much indeed.

Thanks for reading. You can purchase your copy of The Big Rounds here